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The Supernatural Good Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The great modern theologian Henri de Lubac S.J., once wrote: “The supernatural good that the [Church] serves in this world is something that reaches its totality in the invisible order and finds its consummation in the eternal.” (Splendor of the Church) This good news about the Church is important to keep in mind in light of the other news we are hearing these days. Supporters ask the Church to hire a media relations firm while opponents insist that the Church reform itself – which somehow they think involves married and female priests, and the abandonment of the Church’s teaching authority, all of which have nothing to do with the problems at hand.

The pope and the bishops have to act in ways that acknowledge and respond to the legitimate concerns of people outside the Church, yet never lose site of the eternal goal. Benedict XVI certainly understands this dual historical mission. The visit to Malta, for example, offered one of many occasions for him to meet with the victims of clerical abuse and to weep with them – but also to be present as the pastor of the flock. The recent days in Portugal have shown that he grasps the problem and is able to articulate it at greater depth than anyone on the public stage.

Now all real Catholics are quite aware of human failings. They know that the City of God and the City of Man meet – and compete – in our hearts. The human condition requires us to live justly, despite this dramatic tension, until the end of our lives. The same tension can be found in Church organization, from the Vatican down to every diocese and parish. History is made in the very thick of the drama of decisions, in cooperating with grace and truth. True character emerges in this process.

Though few realize it, Benedict has already implemented the needed changes in procedures, beginning in 2002 when, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was tasked with dealing with child abuse in the Church. He has met with victims face-to-face during many of his visits and will do so again and again. He has pushed bishops to get their houses in order. But the attacks on the Church and on Benedict personally have increased, not due to a rise in cases (the numbers are the lowest in decades), but for quite other reasons.

Now the Church should be held to the very highest standards. Despite the failings of some of its members, the Church is, in human terms, the primary presence of supernatural good in this world. In an odd way, the attacks confirm this fact. Other religious groups have as large or worse abuse problems, but remain basically unnoticed.

The Church is not a company selling a product. Public relations efforts may help with unjust attacks. But this is a very different, indeed singular, institution whose mission in the world is to make Christ’s grace and truth visible in thousands of ways, even while responding justly to the crimes of some Catholics and to the needs of their victims. This takes spiritual discipline. As Benedict counseled us at Fatima, “we must cultivate an interior watchfulness of the heart which, for most of the time, we do not possess on account of the powerful pressure exerted by outside realities and the images and concerns which fill our soul.”

The entire communion of saints testifies to this very special kind of presence. In a homily on April 15 at a Mass with the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Benedict said, “under the attacks of the world that speak to us of our sins, we see that being able to do penance is grace.” This is something that the saints know in spades.

Benedict understands the sad situations that he and the bishops are dealing with as occasions of grace. This is the vision of events in history that Saint Peter (and now Benedict XVI) described as follows: “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.” (1 Peter 4:13)

Here is the authentic standard of response both to suffering within the Church and to the sufferings of the world. We follow a crucified Lord. So constantly facing up to sin and bearing suffering are inescapably part of the unfolding of life. The quality of the response is what counts. Faced with such a high standard, Church life should be one of continual repentance. Not a popular idea but theologically accurate! And since the Church is one body, this applies to every single member. If that actually happened, that would be the true reform of the Church.

The very nature of the Church itself (de Lubac) places before us the need for a particular response to her sufferings. The Church does not need merely to say things differently but rather to take on actual penance. As the Rites of the Church explains: “The People of God accomplishes and perfects this continual repentance in many different ways. It shares in the suffering of Christ by enduring its own difficulties, carries out works of mercy and charity, and adopts ever more fully the outlook of the Gospel message.”

Society, itself ridden with sin, does not ask for this. As important as its criticisms are, the real Christian response to our crisis is the one that comes from the depths of Christ’s own life. As the Second Vatican Council said: “From all this it follows that if one member endures anything, all the members co-endure it, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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